Thursday, June 20, 2019

Cooper Union Sanitary Commission Quilt #3: Samuel Bridgham & The WCRA

My new quilt descended in the family of Samuel Willard Bridgham, according to the antique picker who found it in New England and sold it to Maryland dealer Stella Rubin.

S.W. Bridgham (1813-1870)

There are several generations of Samuel Willard Bridghams,
but I am guessing it is this man with the pleasant air 
who had something to do with the quilt.

I was already pretty sure by the quilt's style and inscription that it was a Sanitary Commission quilt made for a hospitalized Civil War soldier. Looking into Samuel Bridgham's life confirms my guess. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, he was heavily involved in charity work for Union Soldiers during the War in New York City.

 A retired banker, he must have been aware of  the initial call from Henry Raymond of the New York Times who called for a city soldiers's aid society to meet in his home a few days after Fort Sumter. Within a week the group multiplied as Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and Louisa Lee Schuyler booked the Grand Hall of the Cooper Union School to organize the Women's Central Association of Relief for the Sick and Wounded of the Army.

Reports said 4,000 women showed up in the Grand Hall on 
April 26, 1861. The engraving is from Harper's Weekly.

Is the room that big?
Anyway, a lot of interested people showed up.

Samuel Bridgham became Secretary of the WCRA and  head of the Supplies Subcommittee.

Because women had few legal rights and fewer perceived organizational skills men were chosen to run the agencies.

Founders of the national Sanitary Commission, a Brady Studios Photo.
Dr. William Van Buren, George T. Strong, Henry Whitney Bellows, 
Dr. Cornelius R. Agnew, and Dr. Oliver Wolcott Gibbs

More men became involved in a second group headed by New Yorker Henry Bellows, a minister who received personal permission from President Lincoln to form the Union Army's "fifth wheel," a civilian agency to supply the hospitals. Socially prominent New Yorkers like Secretary Frederick Law Olmstead designer of Central Park, and Treasurer George Templeton Strong, a lawyer, added gravitas to the national agency that would rely heavily on women's volunteer services.

Forceful and authoritative management

Local branches sprang up all over the Union with names like the Northwestern Branch of the Sanitary Commission in Chicago or the Ladies' Soldiers Aid Society of Columbus.

Office of the Soldiers' Aid Society of Northern Ohio, Cleveland
with crates and barrels of supplies going to Leavenworth,
Kansas, Louisville and Tennessee.
Photo from Case Western Reserve Collection

The Women's Central Relief Association had a territorial problem with being absorbed by the larger Sanitary Commission (described as a more “forceful and authoritative" group) and they retained their initial name, acting as an arm of the national agency as lettered on their office window.

Crates on the sidewalk

Peter Cooper and his family must have been interested in the aid work as the WCRA set up shop in first floor offices of his school building. Rent may have been cheap or free at 7 & 11 Cooper Union.

The offices were behind the arched windows on the street, probably on the west side of the building.
My NYC geography is too rusty to say anything about location with any assurance other than it's in Greenwich Village.

Maybe the east side view on 3rd Avenue.

Women working in the office behind the window above.
The woman in the center is Ellen Collins, second to 
Bridgham on the supplies committee.

Agents in the field

The major jobs of the Sanitary Commission were to motivate civilians to donate supplies like clothing, bedding, food, wine, etc., to collect those supplies, to ship them to field hospitals and long-term care facilities for soldiers, then to distribute them in the field. As head of the WCRA's Subcommittee on Receiving and Forwarding Supplies Samuel Bridgham must have collected and crated up many quilts made by soldiers' aid groups throughout the state.

In just two weeks in August, 1861 (after the Union's Bull Run loss)
Bridgham collected hundreds and hundreds of items, including 2 bed quilts,
 all documented with thanks in the local newspapers.
Do note however, one "Box unknown, from whence"
with 6 shirts, 4 drawers, 11 wrappers, etc.

I noted yesterday the women students in the Engraving Department of the Cooper Institute made quilts in a soldiers' aid society managed by instructor Gulielma Field.

My guess on this particular quilt is that it was finished late in the war and sent downstairs to the WCRA offices. The Commission disbanded in the spring of 1866 and I have seen indications that the remaining supplies and equipment were sold for funds to buy U.S. Bonds. The bonds' interest paid for soldiers' post war relief.

Perhaps Samuel Bridgham bought this quilt after the war. Or it may have been a gift from the students in the Engraving Department. In any case, it went home to Providence eventually, where it looks to have been treated with a good deal of respect over the past 150 years, a souvenir of his war work.
The back is a small star print in chrome orange and madder.
I am quite pleased with my purchase.


  1. It certainly has been looked after very well. Beautiful fabrics and they don't appear to have faded either. Anyway thank you for this series, I have enjoyed reading about it's history - or the history of quilts like that one. As for the hall with 4000 women - well, maybe the reporter was in the saloon earlier!

  2. I think this quilt would be a fabulous block of the month... love all the history... I have collected many vintage fabrics, it would be fun to recreate this quilt...
    Your the best...

  3. So interesting. Thanks for all the detail. The quilt found the perfect home!

  4. Thank you so much for sharing, I have found this very interesting! The older I get the more I appreciate history! Especially relating to quilts!